JyriAnd Blog

Is Chihuaha a Dog?

At first glance, the debate between nominalists and realists is a distant topic, irrelevant in everyday life. It feels like a mere quibbling over details among scholars.

Realists believe in the existence of universals or abstract concepts. For example, in realism, the concept of “redness” exists independently of any specific red object. Nominalists, on the other hand, argue against the independent existence of universals. Instead, they claim that only specific, individual objects exist, and what we call “universals” are merely names or labels we give to a collection of similar objects.

This is all trivial — until the moment a child learns to speak and starts asking questions. A child demands an answer to every incomprehensible thing, event, and experience that he has come across. As parents, we find ourselves searching for the right words to explain the world to our child.

“Why is the sky red in the evening?” the child asks. A simple question, but how do you explain it to the child? Should you just simplify or jump straight into the physics of things? And even if you manage to paint a picture, make it somewhat comprehensible to a child, he will follow up with a question:

“What is red?”

I was recently reading a book to my son. He didn’t understand some words and asked, “What is autumn?”

“Autumn?” I repeated, thinking at the same time how to make it clear to his tiny brain. “Autumn is a season that comes after summer and before winter.”

He was not satisfied with my answer. I continued with a socratic method: “In summer, it’s warm, right?”

He nodded. I proceeded.

“It’s warm in summer because the sun is high and stays out longer. When the sun is out longer, it warms the earth for a longer time. And that’s why it’s warm. Logical, isn’t it?”

He nodded again. “So,” I explained with increasing enthusiasm, “there are four seasons in a year: spring, summer, autumn, and winter. When spring comes, the sun rises higher and higher each day, until midsummer. Midsummer is in the summer. Subsequently, the sun starts to descend. Then comes autumn. In autumn, the sun doesn’t rise as high. Then the weather starts getting colder. Do you understand?”

The boy stared at me, perplexed. I decided to approach it from an astronomical angle. I tried to depict the solar system with my hands. With one hand, I represented the sun and, with the other, the earth orbiting the sun. At the same time, I explained why the days are shorter in autumn than in summer. I thought I made it clear to him, but the child didn’t understand.

He thought for a moment and asked, “Is autumn when the leaves are yellow?” I nodded. “But is it also autumn when you have to wear rubber boots?”

I nodded again. “Yes, because it’s raining all the time.”

He continued asking, each time bringing up a specific example of what he thought was autumn.

His approach was inductive. By bringing one specific example after another, he began to understand what autumn is and what a season is. I, however, explained the concept of autumn deductively, trying to lead him to understanding through logical conclusions.

I learned my lesson and thereafter taught inductively, using examples. But this joy did not last long. One day my son said that our cat was not a cat at all.

I listed the cat’s features: “Our cat has four paws, whiskers, a tail.”

“He is not a cat,” the boy replied. “A cat must have boots.”

“Yes, but only in cartoons, not in real life?”

“What is real life?”

“Never mind,” I gave up.

Another time, we argued if our neighbor’s Chihuahua dog was a dog at all. My son said that dogs are not that small. Dogs are bigger than cats, because they chase after cats. Ergo, they have to be bigger; otherwise cats wouldn’t be afraid of them and would chase them instead. But this dog was smaller than our cat. That Chihuahua was a cat. A fine syllogism, I thought to myself.

I am already looking forward to the day when he decides to use deductive reasoning methods to prove that his claims inevitably lead to one objective truth — that I should give him more pocket money. And then it will be my turn to surprise him with inductive reasoning.